There is much to love about Game of Thrones. Part epic, part tragedy, part comedy, part romance, part zombie-apocalypse – it spans almost the full range of genres. Its sets are breathtaking, its architecture and landscapes inspiring. It has sword fights and flesh, music and dance, exotic cultures and languages, and stories of love, loss, and betrayal – none more tragically beautiful than the story of Jon Snow and Ygritte the Wildling.
Despite its titillating tales of sexual transgression, stellar sword-fights, and wildly disproportionate number of redheads, we should not forget that Game of Thrones is first and foremost a depiction of politics. For all its magic and mysticism, moreover, it offers a remarkably realistic depiction of politics, with valuable lessons for understanding and evaluating politics in the real world.
This realism has much to do with the unapologetic way its characters and their respective deeds and fates have been drawn. The gory fate of its most noble and virtuous characters – Ned Stark in particular – forces us to rethink common conceptions of nobility and virtue. At the same time, we are encouraged to admire or at least respect even the most unsavoury of characters despite our deepest reservations about their motives. The formidable Tywin Lannister is a case in point. The result is a degree of complexity and ambiguity that belies simple moral formulas of good and evil, hero and villain.
The ambivalence we feel towards characters such as Lord Tywin and Ned Stark is a consequence of Game of Thrones' most appealing feature. Unlike most depictions of politics in popular culture, which tend to offer a moral critique of politics (look no further than Batman, who is always there to save Gotham city from itself; to ensure that moral principle triumphs over self-interested politics), Game of Thrones turns this familiar dynamic on its head. It offers a defence of politics, broadly speaking, as that messy art of compromise, judgement, and prudence.
More specifically, Game of Thrones offers a defence of politics against a range of familiar anti-political ways of thinking and acting, including moralism, brute tyrannical force, and emancipatory ideology. Helpfully, we find each of these anti-political alternatives embodied in specific characters. As a general rule, the further each character strays from politics in their respective anti-political directions, the worse their fate tends to be.
But what does it actually mean to think and act politically?
In Westeros and the real world alike, disagreement and conflict are interminable features of human coexistence. While many methods can be used to address the problem of ongoing disagreement and conflict, not every method can be described equally as political. Tyrion Lannister makes this point in Season Five when he reminds a brash Daenerys Targaryen that "killing and politics aren't always the same thing."
Political rule, as opposed to brute tyrannical force or war, recognises the ongoing need to shore-up legitimacy. Importantly, legitimacy is not something that can be imposed from above through sheer force or terror; it must be recognised on an ongoing basis. The link between power and legitimacy should be clear enough. If power is not recognised as legitimate, we find ourselves with the familiar conditions of resistance and revolt. If a ruler makes no effort at all to sure up their legitimacy, they may not find themselves ruling for very long. This is why Machiavelli advises his hypothetical Prince not to become the object of scorn or hatred.
Furthermore, a political ruler does not secure legitimacy by eliminating all those who would oppose or disagree with them, either through purge or cultural revolution. As Aristotle famously remarked, "there is a point at which a polis, by advancing in unity, will cease to be a polis….The truth is that the polis is an aggregate of many members." The political leader accepts the range of opinions and worldviews as given yet pliable, and so gets to work explaining, persuading, and inspiring support and loyalty. Yet because the world and its people will always to some degree remain resistant, even recalcitrant, to any particular worldview or vision, politics also requires compromise, conciliation, tolerance, and a degree of prudence and self-restraint. It requires a level of responsiveness to the interests, desires, and traditions of individuals and groups, though especially large and powerful groups. And it involves the ability to negotiate, form alliances, and build consensus across differences. This is why the nineteenth century German Sociologist, Max Weber, likened politics to "slow, strong drilling through hard boards."
Finally, because there exists no rule book which tells us when to compromise and when to push back, or when or whose interests we should conciliate, and because human life is contingent and ever-changing, politics will always involve that somewhat cryptic and unquantifiable quality that we call judgement. Moreover, if Game of Thrones makes clear one thing, it is that no moral code can ever fully substitute for political judgement. Politics requires making choices in a finite world, and the best option will almost always be the least worst option; the lesser evil. Politics in this sense requires an ability to grapple with moral ambiguity, and weigh conflicting relative goods.
There are certain steps a political leader can take to help avoid erroneous judgements. Foresight, or the ability to make accurate predictions about the behaviour of others or the likelihood of a campaign's success, will help a great deal. Yet because, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, politics involves not only known unknowns, but also unknown unknowns, and because people have the capacity for all sorts of treachery and deceit, the prudent political leader must always prepare for the worst to happen. To use Machiavelli's apt metaphor (not to be confused with the House sigils), one must be both "a fox to discover the traps and a lion to terrify the wolves."
On every one of these points, Ned Stark fails dismally. There is no better example of this than his actions during the events surrounding King Robert's death and succession in Season One. His only concern is for what is right and in accord with the law of rightful succession, according to which Stannis Baratheon, King Robert's younger brother, is the rightful heir. Ned is warned of a likely Lannister plot to gain control of the Kingdom, first by Renly Baratheon and then by Littlefinger. What emerges from these engagements is a stunning juxtaposition of men thinking and acting politically and a man caught in the restrictive and self-destructive grip of his moralistic convictions.